Alumni find teaching home in the Navajo Nation

Danny Letman with some of his students

The Global Gateway for Teachers program is a way for School of Education students to learn about other cultures both abroad – and closer to home. Teaching in the Navajo Nation is one option for students who want to stay in the United States. The program can have such an impact on students, they may go on to accept full-time positions in the communities where they taught.

Danny Letman and Jacob McFarland are two such alumni. Both chose the Navajo Nation for their Global Gateway placement, and both are now fulltime teachers at NaaTsis’Aan Community School in Navajo Mountain, Utah.

Letman chose to teach in the Navajo Nation because he felt he knew so little about Native Americans and wanted to learn more.

“The Navajo Nation Program has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life as I have felt so included by the community,” he said. “It not only prepared me to be a better teacher, but also gave me a diverse array of opportunities I otherwise never would have had. I would highly recommend this program to anyone who wants a unique, culturally embedded, and memorable student teaching experience.”

Jacob McFarland
Jacob McFarland in his classroom

McFarland started interviewing for teaching jobs in Indiana after his Global Gateway experience, but found himself telling stories about the reservation in each of his interviews. He soon realized he needed to go back.

“I realized how quickly Navajo Mountain had become home in those 16 weeks of student teaching,” he said. “The school was struggling but a lot of different things were being put in place, and I could feel that we were heading in the right direction, I knew that I could help in the school improvement process and I wanted to be a part of that. Seeing how far we have come in less than two years is amazing, and it feels great to be a part of the change.”

Students within the Navajo Nation face unique challenges when it comes to education. One is geography: spread across Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, the isolated location means parents mostly work off the reservation, leading students to stay in the school dorm throughout the week. The lack of jobs in the area also translates to a high absence rate as many students and parents are transient throughout the year. Even basic needs are far away – the school McFarland teaches at is 40 miles from the nearest gas station and 98 miles from the nearest Walmart or town.

But the community is working to overcome some obstacles, such as keeping the Navajo language alive, a major challenge as barely any students speak it. McFarland has embraced becoming a learner of the language with his students, calling it one of his favorite aspects of his job. NaaTsis’Aan has been working hard to revitalize the language by creating a Diné language immersion program.

I know how important it is to have strong role models in your life. I hope now as a teacher, I help meet some of those needs for my students.

Danny Letman

“Western education focuses very little on cultural identity and dual language learning. To combat this, many reservation schools are working hard to incorporate Navajo culture and language into daily instruction. As a non-native, I have to be very creative in my planning to help reinforce my students’ cultural identity,” Letman said.

And while low socioeconomic status is a problem not limited to the reservation, 100% of the students at Naatsis'Aan are on free lunch, and many don’t have running water or electricity.

Perhaps despite – or because of – those issues, McFarland and Letman became teachers thanks to their own trials in school.

pow wow
A student of Danny Letman’s performs at a pow wow in this photo taken by Letman

“I wanted to be the person I needed growing up. As a kid, I know how important it is to have strong role models in your life,” Letman said. “I hope now as a teacher, I help meet some of those needs for my students."

McFarland credits his third-grade teacher, Mrs. Jessup, for making sure he knew how to read by working with him after school. Until that point, he said he couldn’t read at all.

“As I got older and started to think about what I wanted to be, I often thought about what Mrs. Jessup did for me and I thought about how cool it would be if I was able to provide that for just one student. I quickly found out that I loved teaching and choosing it as a career was a no brainer,” McFarland remembered.

Now they have both found their teaching homes within the Navajo Nation. Becoming a teacher, McFarland said, is the best decision he ever made.

“It sounds super cheesy and cliché, but you will be a hero and role model to so many students. There is no other career in the world that I know of where you get to go to work every day and laugh, play, solve problems all while taking on the huge responsibility of teaching our youth!”